MANNING, N.D. – Rain and unseasonably cold weather Sept. 12 kept producers and students out of the fields at the Regenerative Agriculture Soil Health Workshop – but the workshop went on in the ranch’s barn.
College students from soil health programs at Dickinson State University and Bismarck State College attended and took part in the NDSU Dickinson Research Extension Center ranch workshop events.
Soil health experts, especially NRCS soil specialists, gave an in-depth look into that vast frontier still being discovered - soil.
The DREC team brought in a sunflower with its roots and some of the soil attached to demonstrate the excellent soil structure of the soil in Section 19, since the participants couldn’t go to the soil.
In Section 19 for the past nine years, Doug Landblom, DREC beef specialist, led a team that was focused on an integrated soil/crop/beef cattle project. That project supports a crop rotation of several crops including a multi-species cover crop mix, a field pea/barley mix or triticale/hairy vetch mix, BMR grazer corn, spring wheat, and sunflowers, along with cattle grazing and forage.
This research has demonstrated greater profitability for the farmer/rancher’s livestock enterprise as well as lowered crop production costs by reducing fertilizer applications, while improving soil health, soil protection and water utilization.
DREC has received such strong soil health with their research that they received national recognition from the national Soil and Water Conservation Society this past summer.
“The principles of soil health practiced during the study include soil armor protection, livestock integration, minimizing soil disturbance, plant/crop/livestock diversity and continual living plant or root on the soil,” Landblom said.
Songul Senturklu, DREC animal scientist visiting scholar, talked about a new soil DNA project at DREC that will analyze the microorganisms in soil. In collaboration with Dr. Josh Steffan, DSU associate professor of soil microbiology, the team says there are many different kinds of genetic material that can be identified using a soil DNA microbial test, including bacteria, fungi, yeast, nematodes, protozoa, and others.
This DNA test can find out if the soil is either lacking or exceeding recommended levels of microbial elements.
“For instance, soil microbial tests can identify if there are dangerous infectious bacteria in the topsoil,” Senturklu said.
DNA occurs in every living cell and contains the genetic blueprint.
“The soil microbial DNA test will be an extremely important genomic analysis tool to analyze the diverse microorganisms in soil ecosystems,” she said.
The team plans to make assessments about the genetic material they find in the soil at the ranch and soil in other places.
“From our integrated crop and livestock research here at the ranch, we are now recommending no-till systems and crop rotation with crop diversity, in order to improve the physical, chemical, and microbial properties of soils contribute to the sustainability of agricultural systems,” she said.
Dr. Heike Bucking, South Dakota State University soil microbiologist, talked about her team’s ground-breaking research on the mycorrhizal interactions of plants.
“The arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) symbiosis, which forms between plant hosts and soil fungi, plays a key role in the nutrient uptake of the majority of land plants, including many economically important crop species,” Bucking said at the workshop.
Many plant species form relationships with AM fungi, sharing carbohydrates with fungi that colonize their roots. In exchange, these fungi provide plants with nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as the trace elements of copper and zinc.
“AM fungi increases the nitrogen-fixing ability of root nodules,” Bucking said.
Soybeans and other legumes should be colonized with both rhizobia and AM fungi.
“Legumes that are colonized with rhizobia and AM fungi show higher biomass, higher seed yields, and a higher nutrient efficiency than plants that are colonized with nitrogen fixing rhizobia alone.”
Additionally, these fungi appear to protect plants from environmental stresses, such as drought, salinity, flooding, and diseases.
Microbial fertilizers or pesticides can protect plants against these kinds of stresses.
“What we know about microbes it they can replace all those environmental stresses that are challenges to plant growth,” she said.
For example, with an efficient AM symbiosis, soybeans can reach their full yield potential under poor N and phosphate conditions.
AM fungi benefits depend on plant variety, and on the microbial community composition.
Steffan talked about carbon, where carbon pools are located, how the carbon cycle works, and how organic matter can be gained or lost.
In order to manage organic matter (OM), Steffan recommends integrating livestock into crop systems, adding cover crops, rotating crops, leaving crop residue and adding manure as fertilizer.
“Organic matter can be lost through soil erosion, but gained through adding manure, using biochar, grazing with cattle and following other soil health practices,” Steffan said.
Factors involving OM decomposition include: soil temperature, soil moisture, soil pH, size of OM and type of OM.
The NRCS team of Susan Sampson-Liebig, soil quality specialist, and Jeanne Heilig, soil survey team, talked about soil health indicators and introduced the Web Soil Survey.
The Web Soil Survey is a tool to find out all about soils in North Dakota, including their properties and qualities.
“It is one of the tools available for everybody about soils, introduced in 2005. Before that, the NRCS sent out lots and lots of books, put together after the counties were surveyed and there was no way to update them,” Heilig said.
Anyone can access the online survey and find out information about soil in an area as long as they know the address. A map of the area can be printed out.
“You don’t have to look at the whole county. You can look at the exact location you want,” she said.
For example, under the tab of ‘map unit description of Stark County,’ the soils are Cohagen fine sandy loams. The elevation is 1,650 feet to 3,600 feet with the mean annual precipitation of 13-18 inches.
There are also properties and qualities listed of soils in the area selected.
The survey gives all kinds of information about soils in a certain area, and gives the most current data.
“You can find out what the soil looks like on your family farm on the Web Soil Survey. You can also look at it for buying property, seeing what type of soil there is,” she said.
She said there could be updates made to the maps when the NRCS comes out to an area.
“We are constantly sampling soils from every area all the time,” Heilig said.
Maps selected can be saved in the shopping cart, and checked out later. Even though it is named a shopping cart, the Web Soil Survey is free to use and all maps selected are free.
The survey comes from the USDA NRCS and can be accessed at http://websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov.
Hal Weiser, state soil specialist for NRCS, talked on soil health principles and conducted a tabletop slake/water holding capacity demonstration.
Many soil demonstrations were held, so producers, students and others could see for themselves how good structured soil acts.
To find out more, see https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/dickinsonrec.